Mindfulness can support our school communities

Dr. Alan Lee

Guest blog by Dr. Alan Lee, Chief Executive Officer of Bedfordshire Schools Trust and National Leader of Education (NLE)

Mindfulness can do much to support schools and those that make up our school communities.   Certainly, it has supported me and even changed my life. I also see it is changing the lives of many of the leaders, staff and pupils I work with.

Some fifteen years ago, I was admitted to the hospital with a pulmonary embolism. I had been struggling with my breathing, failing to see it and in big trouble. Yet, to the outside world, everything was fine. I was a successful Headteacher. All the usual metrics: pupil numbers, exam results, and Ofsted grades were great. And, I had received much quality training, gaining both the NPQH and a PhD. Certainly, I had all the skills and knew what to do!  However, this was my wake-up call. If I was going to survive I had to do things differently. Little did I know, my mindfulness adventure was about to begin…

As an educator with a passion for learning, I started to study the brain, and how it has evolved and functions. I was fascinated to learn how neural pathways possess a plasticity and can be re-wired. That happiness is the normal state of the mind and is rediscovered through the practice of mindfulness. Inspired, I completed numerous courses and attended many retreats, with organisations such as MiSP. Gradually, I became more aware, both of myself and others. I began to see clearly and accept my emotions with kindness. Friends and family began to comment on the inner calm I seemed to have found and the compassionate way in which I spoke and behaved. Confirmed by others, and felt by me, I uncovered a deep sense of happiness.

Leadership rooted in mindfulness and compassion

Professionally, an approach to leadership rooted in mindfulness and compassion was unfolding. This has nurtured and sustained me over the last fifteen years of Headship.  Leading an organisation of around 6000 pupils and 800 staff across 15 settings – particularly during the COVID pandemic – can be a bit of an emotional roller-coaster. However, mindfulness has enriched my leadership with perspective, insight and joy. Moreover, this wholehearted approach has yielded much success, as I have moved from Headteacher to Executive Headteacher to CEO of a Trust of schools.

Our Trust – the Bedfordshire Schools Trust (Trust) – in partnership with MiSP trainers and supported by Empowering Leadership has also embraced mindfulness. Compassion is one of our four core values and mindfulness training is an entitlement to all our staff members.

MiSP’s .b Foundations course is our core mindfulness training offer. Over the last 3 years approaching 150 members of staff have voluntarily completed this training in their own time. Many of the staff have continued to complete further MiSP courses to enable them to teach mindfulness in the classroom. dots (3-6 years), Paws b (7-11) and .b (11-18) have all been very popular.

The impact on staff is clear

The impact in the BEST community has been clear! Significant benefits have been realised both in school and for individuals. For instance for our staff:

  • Our Director of Education Alison Wishaw, often explains the importance of mindfulness for school culture, suggesting that awareness is the ‘first step in developing a culture of compassion’.
  • Our Headteachers, talk in terms of effectiveness and wellbeing. For example, Steve Adams (Headteacher, Pix Brook Academy) suggests how ‘mindfulness helps us to be fully present to children and colleagues at school and to our families at home. In this way, we become more effective and our well-being improves’. Whilst Nick Martin (Headteacher, Samuel Whitbread Academy) notes that ‘I am now more in control of my mind at times of stress and anxiety’.
  • Staff at our schools have identified how mindfulness has empowered them to support others. Michael Warlow (Gothic Mede Academy) says he now feels more comfortable supporting staff, not only enquiring as to how they are ‘doing’, but also how they are ‘feeling’.
  • Mindfulness courses have also proved popular with support staff. Nafia Baust, our Chief Finance Officer explains how she is ‘learning the value of being more aware of what I am doing before my mind moves on to the next thing. Now, I am living at a better pace. My focus, as well as my awareness, has improved’.

Mindfulness and our pupils at BEST

Also, our pupils have shown signs of gaining much from their developing mindfulness practice as demonstrated for me in particular in the moving assemblies I have been part of where primary school children have explained to parents and governors the power of the pause and breath in dealing with difficult emotions: something we can perhaps all do with being reminded!

In secondary, mindfulness is also being introduced in a number of ways.  For instance, the practice is being used to support those transitioning to larger school communities and during examination periods. In KS3 mindfulness has been introduced either as part of the PHSE or Character Education, whilst Sixth Form students have the option to complete an Extended Project on Mindfulness, accumulating UCAS points.

“I try this before going to bed to help me wind down”

“Doing this before mocks might help me just focus more”

If this piece helps at all in reflecting my experience that Mindfulness can support our school communities, and even change lives, I will be thrilled. Thank you to those of you working to bring mindfulness into your school settings and being a part of this growing community of MiSP mindfulness educators!

Please note Alan is a Trustee of MiSP (kindly writing this from his personal and professional experiences).